Haley to colleges: Earn your keep

Machine shop instructor Rory Moore demonstrates the operation of a computer numerical- control milling machine Wednesday at Trident Technical College in North Charleston.

COLUMBIA — James Hardee knew when his son was born that he needed a job that paid well, and he needed it quickly.

So Hardee, 28, enrolled in a two-year machine apprenticeship program with Bosch. He now is in the first year, taking classes at Trident Technical College.

And he’s happy that the school has the latest equipment in its computer numerical-controlled lab, where he is learning the latest methods for making tools and parts.

“The new, updated machines make students want to take those classes,” he said. And students need to learn on the latest equipment if they are to land jobs.

Trident Tech President Mary Thornley said the state’s technical colleges “serve the neediest students, who pay the least amount of money, and need the most help.”

She was one of hundreds of higher-education leaders and a handful of legislators and business people who attended Gov. Nikki Haley’s conference on higher education Wednesday at the South Carolina State Museum.

Haley said the conference was another step in the higher-education reform process she launched just after she was elected two years ago.

Under the Republican’s plan, public colleges and universities would be funded based on whether they met goals on graduation rates, access and affordability, educational quality, and their impact on economic development, including how well they place graduates in jobs.

A “performance-based funding” model now has been developed, Haley said. And the General Assembly can begin discussing the plan in its upcoming session.

The plan also will include regulatory reform measures, she said. That means that the schools would have more freedom in how they operate and spend state money.

Now, school leaders say the cumbersome state processes for things such as hiring, procurement and construction slow down their progress and drive up their costs.

Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston, said he expects at least two bills related to higher education to be introduced in the upcoming session. One of them almost certainly will be about putting in place “performance-based funding,” he said.

Another will be about giving more power to the state’s Commission on Higher Education. That agency now is a coordinating body but does not have the authority to govern.

Limehouse said he doesn’t think anyone will push to have the commission act as a Board of Regents. An attempt to establish that kind of group would meet so much resistance from higher-education leaders that it likely never would pass, he said.

He thinks a board should be created to ensure that colleges and universities streamline their offerings and reduce the number of programs offered at multiple institutions.

“I’m going to support them,” Limehouse said of the bills. “I might even introduce them.”

Thornley said it’s important to remember that job training, especially the kind of hands-on training technical colleges can do, is an important piece of the solution to increased economic development in South Carolina. “And it is not cheap,” she said.

Leaders from four-year colleges have met regularly with the governor and other state officials over the past two years to develop criteria for performance-based funding, said Brian McGee, chief of staff for College of Charleston President George Benson. And they have come up with measures “that make sense to us,” he said.

“We’re looking forward to getting them finalized,” he said. But it will be a bit of a challenge for a diverse group of institutions and state leaders to ultimately agree on a plan, he said. “The hard thing will be going from a great set of ideas to something that can work in practice.”

Francis Marion University President Fred Carter said it’s important to remember the regulatory reform piece in the overall plan. “If you really want to run like FedEx,” he said, “don’t treat us like the post office.”

Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491 or on Twitter @dianeknich.